Polaris Music Prize nominees: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By: Hilary Johnston July 2nd, 2013



It’s that time of year again, when the Polaris Music Prize long-list is announced and, in turn, the Canadian music pot is effectively stirred.  


For the uninitiated, the Polaris is a title and a $30,000 prize bestowed annually to an artist whose album demonstrates the greatest artistic merit. Album sales and hype are supposedly null points of influence, although keeping those two factors at bay is almost as prickly as defining “artistic merit”. 


The awkward cousin of the UK’s Mercury Prize, the Polaris has been awarded to Feist (Metals, 2012), The Arcade Fire (The Suburbs, 2012), Karkwa (Les chemins de verre, 2010), Fucked Up (The Chemistry of Common Life, 2009), Caribou, (Andorra, 2008) Patrick Watson (Close to Paradise, 2007) and Final Fantasy (He Poos Clouds, 2006). Evidently, it’s no coincidence that the foundation of my iTunes collection is comprised of their work, which helps explain the yelp of excitement I let out when Feist accepted her well-deserved award last year. Suffice to say, I generally trust Polaris to not lead me astray.  That is why, with this year, I am left with a slightly unsettling feeling. The cause for alarm could be that, although some great names are present, there is potential for great tragedy, too. Imagine the anti-climax of seeing Metric win for an album that is far from their best? Or worse – what if God Speed You! Black Emperor’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ went home empty handed while the comparatively colourless self-titled album by Hannah Georgas left victorious? I would have no choice but to leave Canada forever!


Yes, everyone has their horse to win, I get that. That is why I am choosing Colin Stetson as my steed to cross the finish triumphant. Well, my hope at least. A New History in Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light demonstrates a level of intricacy and virtuosity out of reach to the other vying candidates. Stetson’s work feels conceptual; like installations rather than songs. It is equal parts haunting and enchanting, showcasing more musicality than Hayden, The Luyas and Corb Lund combined.  Delving textural and melodic depths, it even puts Whitehorse’s masterpiece, The Fate of the World Depends On This Kiss, to shame. 


Incredibly, all of this is achieved by just one man. Using circular breathing to give us his distinctive thick polyphony, Stetson amplifies the sound of the saxophone by hitting the valve pads for extra percussion. It doesn’t end there. He also wears a microphone around his neck to capture the wailing vocals that, believe it or not, come from his throat. As you listen to this record and inevitably begin to question your understanding of sound and beauty, remember that this is all created live with no overdubbing or looping. Whoa.


As I anticipate the short list announcement on July 16th, I imagine the panelists meeting at Jian Ghomeshi’s estate (furnished entirely with beanbag chairs) deliberating “artistic merit”.  I wish to locate this meeting of the minds and pleasantly request that the panel, please, award an album that actually pushed some boundaries and avoid favouring the conventional. Surely Canadian music has more to offer than that. With that said, I would also be willing to stand outside and shout “Don’t be weak!”



My Short List Fantasy Draft

(If the panel consisted of just one person, me, this is what the short list would look like. We can all dream, right?): 



A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation




Evening Hymns – Spectral Dusk




Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’




Kid Koala – 12 bit Blues




Lee Harvey Osmond – The Folk Sinner




Purity Ring – Shrines




Rhye – Woman




Daniel Romano – Come Cry With Me




Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light




Suuns – Images du futur





Be sure to follow Toronto Music Scene on Twitter @TorontoMusic and Hilary Johnston @hilary_johnston


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